If there is an abiding theme in Shoojit Sircar’s last two films, it is love even though no two films in recent times have worn this template so loosely. The observation deserves mention because Sircar along with writer Juhi Chaturvedi present a brand of love we have long forsaken, the kind left so far behind in the past that there is novelty in the premise itself: a young boy devoting years of his life and self to take care of his colleague after an accident in October and a daughter putting up with the whims and fancies of her ageing father in Piku. In his latest outing and fourth collaboration with Chaturvedi, this theme runs deep both literally and figuratively.
Based on the legend of Gulabo-Sitabo — two warring sisters-in-law — the film has almost literal stand-ins: a landlord and a tenant. Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan), and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana) are perpetually at loggerheads over the mansion they stay in though neither is the owner. The once opulent and now dilapidating haveli belongs to the 94-year-old Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), Mirza’s wife. Owing to ancient property laws, Baankey can neither be asked to pay more than the meagre rent he does nor can he be evicted. The aggrieved Mirza makes his grouse known by playing petty pranks: stealing bulbs, imposing sudden parking fees and locking washrooms. Staying with a widowed mother and three sisters, Baankey retaliates by refusing to pay rent most months.
The government too is thrown into the mix when an official from the archaeology department (Vijay Raaz) gets a whiff of the decade-old haveli by accident and fearing he will lose it all, Mirza hires a lawyer whose sole expertise resides in vacating and selling houses. Consequently, the landlord and the tenant proceed to choose sides and keep busy formulating ruses to secure their share resembling, sometimes literally, a pack of wolves.
The themes are painted in broad strokes: our innate tendency to value past only when there is a price assigned to it, the increasing encroachment of the modernist snare in the guise of development to engulf every vestige of the bygone era, and the futility of greed. But I suspect the pursuit here is more philosophical than moral, the gaze is on humanity rather than on the human beings.
For Baankey and Mirza, the mansion is a prized possession they refuse to part with. But their attachment to the place, much like their interpersonal relationship, can be quantified in terms of an arrangement. The pittance Baankey pays for rent works out well for him. For Mirza, however, the place is the reason and purpose of his existence. Trudging along the streets of Lucknow with a bunch of keys in his pocket at all times, he is the caretaker who has ceased to remember life being anything else. His dream to own the place keeps him awake at night.
In their constant tug of war, they cease to view the wizened Begum as a living entity. For one she is the absent owner and for the other, an obstacle in his path. For both, she is as useful and useless as the place.
Despite their age difference, the chasm of time contains no accumulated wisdom. Mirza, the gold-digger is what Baankey will eventually grow old to be. Even when pitted against each other, they are on the same side of the battle. And yet, it is not greed that makes them alike and lesser human beings but their complete inadequacy — and not necessarily reluctance — to look at people, things and even love beyond terms of an exchange, thereby accounting for the tragic underpinnings in their characters. It is this that eggs them on, making them incompetent to co-exist and blinding their vision to anything else.
There is a brief moment when Mirza is told off by one of Begum’s relatives. When asked by the lawyer why they hate him so much, the old man appears befuddled. “Humko toh nahi laga” (I have never felt anything like that). It would have been funny if it was not this sad. His jaded vision is so unfamiliar with love and care that it fails to recognise even their variant. By never loving Begum, Mirza forgets he has never been loved too. By remaining consumed to win a bargain, he remains oblivious of being part of a bigger bargain all his life, one that he stood to lose from the outset. Baankey stands merely a few steps behind him.
Notwithstanding the difference in tonality, Sircar’s last two outings withhold a kind of care-infused love whose presence can be felt through its potency. It made purpose out of a cause for an aimless youth in October and people out of places in Piku when the protagonist decided against selling her ancestral home. In Gulabo Sitabo, the same lack reduces the two male protagonists to puppets, making them view each other and Begum as plots of land. It makes places out of people.
For a film critiquing the transactional nature of relationships, it also ends with one. Except, there is a change in the currency. From fearing to be outwitted by each other, they are outwitted by love. The message is clear. Gulabo Sitabo is not about Mirza and Baankey but what they represent: a deficiency in humanity that increasingly propels us to adjudge the value of everything without knowing its worth. It goes further and underlines its futility by depicting that no matter what we gauge to be the price, the worth will always be more–both of an old chair and an old person.
Gulabo Sitabo is streaming on Amazon Prime
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